How to Detect and Prevent Senior Malnutrition as a Primary Caregiver

how to manage senior nutrition

Nutrition is a critical component of healthy aging. If you are taking care of an elderly parent or acting as a caregiver of a senior, you should provide them with a balanced diet that is full of vitamins, minerals, proteins, healthy fats, and other essential nutrients. 

But, as we will discuss, malnutrition is a complex health issue. We will review the importance of nutrition, the causes of malnutrition, how to spot malnutrition before it worsens, and how to prevent malnutrition.

Why is nutrition important?

“Let food be thy medicine and let medicine be thy food.” A poor diet can make a senior more susceptible to a wide range of illnesses and accidents. According to the Mayo Clinic, malnutrition can lead to the following health concerns:

  • Weakened immune system
  • Slow wound healing 
  • Muscle weakness or decreased bone mass
  • Reduced cognition

These health issues increase the likelihood of hospitalization and death, so it’s crucial to resolve malnutrition before an adverse event occurs.

What are the causes of malnutrition?

Malnutrition is caused by many factors — often more than one. By determining the cause, you can develop a game plan to get your loved one the nutrition they need.

Normal aging

As we age, our tastes change, and our appetites gradually decline. If you are an adult child taking care of a parent, you might notice their diet is very different from what you remember when you were younger. They may also be less active, which means they need fewer calories to function. Malnutrition can creep up gradually if they are not eating healthy whole foods or not eating enough generally. 

Socioeconomic factors

Half of all people over the age of 65 earn less than $20,000 a year. Fresh produce, seafood, and other healthy foods cost more than boxed foods that are much more processed and lack vital nutrients. A senior may sacrifice nutrition for affordability, which could lead to malnutrition.

Another issue is social isolation. If a senior lives alone or has limited social contact, they may not put as much effort to make meals or eat regularly. Social eating with family and friends bolsters well-being. Eating alone may have an inverse effect and increase the risk of depression, another risk factor. Also, a senior who lives alone may have limited ability to grocery shop or prepare meals. 

Illness and medications

We previously wrote a post about malnutrition that provided ways to feed someone who has had a stroke. It is an excellent supplement to this blog post to help you develop a strategy to prevent or treat malnutrition. Many different health conditions could affect someone’s ability to eat. Suppose your loved one has been diagnosed with dementia, has limited mobility or poor dental health, or is suffering from another illness contributing to malnutrition. In that case, you may have to speak with a doctor or nutritionist to develop a feeding plan.

The same is true for certain medications and treatments. Some medicines may affect diet or even the ability of the body to absorb nutrients. If your loved one is a cancer patient and undergoing chemotherapy treatment, they may not have much of an appetite due to side effects like nausea.

What are the signs of malnutrition?

Malnutrition may show warning signs gradually or quickly, depending on the individual. The warning signs may be subtle at first, but if you notice any of these symptoms, you should speak with their doctor to know if it’s malnutrition or something else that needs to be treated or modified.

  • Lack of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Brittle hair and nails
  • Dental problems
  • Swollen tongue
  • Inflammation at the corner of the mouth
  • Nails that curve upwards
  • Depression or other mood changes
  • Chronic diarrhea

Strategies to increase appetite and interest in food

Keep a food journal. Record everything your loved one eats and drinks, so you have a better idea of whether they’re eating enough or eating foods that will provide them with adequate nutrition. A food journal will help a doctor or nutritionist see what’s causing the nutrition issues and determine a plan to solve them.

Make meals more palatable: We noted that taste buds change and diminish as we age. It’s essential to understand what your loved one likes and how you can incorporate those flavors into the foods you prepare for them. You could also change the menu up more to make meals more appealing. 

Add supplements: It is okay to add vitamins and other supplements to your loved one’s diet. But we would encourage you to speak with their doctor before adding anything new as some supplements could affect medication or be dangerous for people with certain conditions. 

Make it a comfortable routine: Social eating is important, especially for seniors who may have limited connections. Turn mealtime into more than a time to eat. Turn it into a daily event where your loved one can connect with you and others who are part of their social circle. 

Our caregivers can help you manage nutrition.

We understand that being a primary caregiver for a senior takes a lot of time and energy, and you may need extra help. As nutrition is so important for senior health, our home care services include meal preparation and feeding to ensure our clients receive adequate nutrition. We can also help with grocery shopping and provide companionship to make eating healthy meals easier. If you need caregiving assistance, please contact us to learn more about our compassionate caregiving services.